The Common Tongue of Twenty-First-Century London

Schoolchildren in the British capital have developed a dialect, Multicultural London English—and my American-born son is learning it.
Animated gif of four class photos from Steve McQueen's project Year 3.
For the project “Year 3,” a collective portrait of London, Steve McQueen photographed students in the British equivalent of second grade.Photographs © Steve McQueen and Tate / Courtesy the artist / Thomas Dane Gallery / Marian Goodman Gallery

In the summer of 2018, my family moved to London, the city of my birth, from New York, my home for three decades. We wanted to be closer to my mother as she neared the age of ninety, and my husband and I were eager to expand the horizons of our son, who had just turned thirteen. My parents had moved to Weymouth, on the southern English coast, when I was just three years old, and so London was unfamiliar to me. Acquainting myself anew with the city, I walked its streets and visited its parks and museums with an exhilarating sense of novelty.

Not long after my family settled into a new home, near Hampstead Heath, I went south to the Tate Britain museum, on the bank of the Thames, to see an ambitious project undertaken by the British artist and filmmaker Steve McQueen. He had made a collective portrait of London by photographing its Year Three students—second grade, in the British system. All the city’s elementary schools—public, private, faith-based, special-needs—were invited to participate, and more than fifteen hundred of them agreed to have photographers deputized by McQueen take a class picture. The result, called “Year 3,” is an assemblage of more than three thousand images, featuring seventy-six thousand children.